When I first starting teaching, I quickly came to the realization that many of my students were not reading. In trying to figure out what was going on, I conducted informal polls and interviews, asking students all kinds of questions as to why they were not reading, whether it be pleasure reading or the required reading in my class. Year after year I did this, even assigning SSR in class each day, just to get something in the hands of my students, thinking that if I could get a book in their hands, they would, of course, naturally open it and read. And boy, was I wrong! Because what most students would tell me, the reason why they weren’t reading, was that “it was too boring.” I am a little ashamed to admit that even though student after student would say this, it wasn’t until about the third year that a little light bulb went off in my head, because I, too, once said this. In fact, not just one time. Many times.
And my story is not much different from the students I teach. When I was young, I loved to read and loved to be read to. But somewhere down the line, around middle school, I just quit reading. I only read what was required of me in my classes. This continued through my junior year in college. Spring semester of that year I signed up for a Celtic Mythology English class, which seemed slightly interesting. Honestly, it was the best decision I made in college because that class changed my life. No, there wasn’t anything really philosophical that we discussed, or new ideas that shaped my future thinking. I was asked to read many books, just like any other college English class, but there was one book, one book, that was on the list that changed everything for me. Within the first chapter, this book transformed everything I hated about reading. All of a sudden, reading wasn’t boring, the hours didn’t drag on like the Dickens, and I didn’t have to reread each page because my mind wandered. I finally found a book that I connected with, a book that for whatever reason grabbed me, pulled me in, and wouldn’t let me go. It was the book that made me fall back in love with reading and I knew I would never be the same again. That book? The Hobbit.
I tell this story every year to my students, when they find out they’re required to read 15 books of their choice during the school year. When students tell me books are boring, my answer to them is, You just haven’t found the right book. And it’s true. Students who tell me that they dislike reading have become my mission. I try to get to know them, (and every student, for that matter), their likes and dislikes, and then recommend books that might appeal to them. Just try the first 50 pages. If you don’t like it by then, I give you permission to abandon it. Because for some reason, students who pick books for pleasure reading feel like they have to finish the book they start. And that is such torture! They are just reinforcing the idea that books are boring! We spend a lot of time in my class talking about books and recommendations, and honestly, this has really helped.
Around my 5th year of teaching, I started a reading library in my classroom. At first I was very snobbish about it, labeling each book by number and genre, making sure all came back by the end of the SSR time. And I never loaned them out to students. (Gasp! What was wrong with me?!) Now, I have been a little more relaxed. (Truth be told, that has been quite hard for me, but I have had to come to peace about the books I bring to school, that they might get lost or stolen or damaged.)
So, here are a few things that I learned along the way of trying to cultivate a reading life in my students. Each year I tweak it a bit, but for the most part, here’s what I do.
- Have a variety of books on the shelf–Incorporate a wide range of reading abilities as well as genres. Students have wide interests and skill level. (As you can see from the picture at the top of this blog, my reading collection is quite eclectic, because my students are! This is just one of 3 bookshelves I have.) I also email all my friends each August to see if they have any books they’re willing to donate. Our local library also has a Friends of the Library chapter, so I find many cheap books that way too.
- Create a lending library–Let students check out books. I created a spreadsheet with a column for names, title of book, and date of when they checked it out. Once they finish it they let me know and I cross their name off the list. I have a list on the wall of high-interest books, as well as an AP list. (This is a list of the commonly tested books on the AP Literature and Composition test.) There’s even a list of student-recommended books.
- Keep tracks of your books–As best you can, of course. This is where the spreadsheet comes in handy, as I cannot remember who has what book. And I check in with students if they’ve had it for some time.
- Incorporate choice books into lessons–Students complete small assignments on all kinds of topics–discussing conflict, analyzing a passage they really liked, dissecting a theme. I used to have book reports, but for pleasure reading, it takes all the fun out of it, so now I do these smaller assignments scattered throughout the year and have discussions about them. It has eased a burden for the students, and me, as I really disliked grading book reports.
- Have book talks–Each week I try to talk about a book that I think students will enjoy. I give a brief plot summary, show the book, state the genre it’s in, and then read an excerpt. I also call on students to share their book. The more you get students talking about books they like, the more reading will become contagious. Students also fill out 3×5 card book recommendations, and that is posted on the wall for all to see.
- Create student accountability–This comes in many different forms. Students fill out a weekly sheet on how many pages they read that week. I call on students daily to share with the class about their book. Students visit with me when others are reading and we have a little conference. (And this is great to talk to students about their book. If they love it or hate their book, you can tell! But it certainly helps if you have struggling students–either in getting into their book or basic comprehension–and you can have a great conversation about it one-on-one.) When students are reading during class, I conference with as many as I can, taking notes on genres they love/find harder to read, fix-up strategies, what-to-read-next lists, etc.
- Read teaching books to help with cultivating a reading life in your students—Book Love, by Penny Kittle, Deeper Reading, by Kelly Gallagher, The Reading Zone, by Nancy Atwell, and The Book Whisperer, by Donalyn Miller are just a few that I’ve read and incorporated into my teaching.
I’d love to hear some of your thoughts on how you incorporate choice books into your classroom.